Muntiny On the Markha
I was well aware of the story concerning the Mutiny on the Bounty that took place in April of 1787, but little did I know that a similar fate was about to befall me as I set out on a trek thru Ladakh’s Markha valley. By the end of the ill-fated trek I would wonder just how much Captain Bligh and I had in common. However, it makes sense for me to start this tale of woe from the beginning. The formation of the trek actually began in a jeep ride from Srinigar to Leh. It was on this long and bumpy ride that I explained to a fellow passenger called Patrick (a Londoner born to Indian parents) that I was on my way to Leh to put together an outdoor adventure and was looking for one or two novices (or victims) to take along. He immediately volunteered and from that moment on was so enthusiastic that I had no choice but to put together a trek and take him along. When we reached Leh I was terribly sick however, so for a few days I laid in bed taking antibiotics while he chomped on the bit for departure and talked up the adventure to fellow guests. Finally after two days I got out of bed and set a departure date. He was as excited as a small boy on Christmas Eve at the news. In the mean time we had to do some homework and gather supplies. While at the J&K Tourist office asking questions that day I ran into a petite package from Germany called Joanna. I asked her if she wanted to do some independent trekking and she agreed readily. I then introduced her to Patrick and left them to get acquainted. Both were of approximately the same age (21 and 22 respectably) and in university. That evening we met for dinner and it was agreed that Joanna would join us on the condition that her mother approved (even though she was 22 year old, she seemed like a young 22 so I insisted that she send her mother my web site links and get her permission to go).
The following day I was told that Joanna had the green light from home so we set the departure date at September 2. I then gave my new crew a to-do list (purchase day packs, windbreaker jackets, food, etc.) to keep them busy until our departure and in order for them to bond. I also suggested that they eat breakfast and dinner together each day to become better acquainted. As the leader of the expedition (so to speak) and director of filming I felt I should remain aloof, so stayed outside of their activities and meals. I thought this would make it easier for me to direct and manage them during the trek. Little did I know that I was actually missing an opportunity to learn their true characters and avoid future conflicts.
On the evening before our departure I was still feeling a little ill and spent much of the night visiting the little room that all westerners spend a great deal of time in when they visit India. Strike one. The 6am knock at my door came much too early for my liking, but the lambs were excited so I was committed. I got up reluctantly, grabbed my gear, and headed down to the courtyard where I found the kids waiting.
Early that morning (day 1) we walked thru the quite town to the New Bus Park and there started the natural process of asking every bus its destination. A few had destinations painted onto the roof luggage racks, but these were generally old and incorrect or were not in English. After being directed to a few incorrect buses we settled on the one heading to Stok village. Was to depart around 8am (give or take half an hour for the hunting of additional passengers). At 8:30am we set off with a full load and quite a number of westerners. After asking a few questions I found out that Stok village has a popular meditation retreat and that most of the passengers where on their way to a week of enforced silence and meditation (solitary confinement is what I called it). During the next week there would be a number of occasions when I would wonder if it would have been wiser for me to have signed up for meditation classes instead of trekking.
After a very slow hour of picking up and dropping off passengers along the way we stopped at a remote spot to unload the meditating westerners. At this point the bus ticket taker climbed on top of the bus and began tossing down backpacks. I jumped off the bus when I realized that he was tossing off all the backpacks, not just the ones for the meditation crowd. By the time I collected mine I noticed that one of the outer straps had been ripped off. Strike two. Not a good sign since my cheap daypack was not that sturdy to begin with. I fetched our packs from the pile and tossed them into the bus. Soon we were bouncing along the road again to the old pattern of stop and go. Then near what appeared to be the end of the road the bus stopped, and started to reverse up a side road to turn around. By the time I realized that we had reached the end of our ride it was too late to stop my backpack from tumbling forward, off the seat, out the open door, and into a muddy stream that ran down the side of the road. Strike three. Where the trekking gods trying to warn me about impending doom?
After cleaning the mud off my pack we walked up the road to the washed out bridge, crossed the river, and then sat down at a small teahouse, at the trailhead, for breakfast. After breakfast I asked the kids if they were ready to begin and they acknowledged, so we set off in high spirits around 10 am.
It was a sunny and hot day and our progress up stream on the clearly marked trail was slow and leisurely. Our objective was to clear the Stok La pass if possible, but it was not an absolute. I was still feeling ill so I dragged quite a bit. We took lots of breaks (generally whenever we found some shade) and drank copious amounts of water (or orange flavored Tang in my case). By 2pm we had passed the trail split to Stok Kangri and were on a much steeper and more difficult trail. By 3pm I noticed that the stream was drying up and considered stopping to refill the bottles, but felt too sluggish to make the effort. I would pay for that oversight.
By 4pm we reached a stone hut below the pass (the false pass as we came to find out later). Here we rested for a long time and considered our next step. The kids were almost out of water so I gave them two options. We could spend the night at the hut and they could share the remainder of my flavored water (and I would resort to my emergency 500ml Pepsi). However if they chose this option they would not be able to eat any food since digestion requires liquids and we simply didn’t have enough in this instance. The other option was to continue over the pass and then down the other side for at least one hour where I estimated the first water source to be located. Patrick opted for option two because he had a can of beans in tomato sauce that was making him crazy. He simply had to eat them and was willing to trek a few more hour if need be. Joanna agreed reluctantly.
We all set out on different tracks for the crest and soon found that it was much further that it appeared. In time our breaks became more frequent and the distance covered broke down into smaller and smaller increments. When we finally reached the crest we found that it wasn’t the pass. We could see the pass in the distance and had no choice but to continue on reluctantly. At 6pm we finally reached the real Stok La (sometimes listed as Namling La) pass (4570m) and rested for half an hour. By 6:30pm the sun was starting to disappear behind the distant mountains so I stated that we needed to push on if we were to reach water before dark. We then started a mad dash and scramble down the dusty slopes and trails in a race with the sun. By 8pm, and in darkness, we reached the first camping spot with a stream of clear water at its base. We setup my tent by the light of our flashlights and then sat eating our emergency provisions as the sky filled with stars and the night sounds of insects in the valley below began in chorus. by 9pm the three of us were tightly tucked into the two-man tent for our first night of group sleep and difficulties. We were sleeping at 4000m and the kids were having a hard time of it. I suggested they take some Diamox and Paracetamal and eventually they settled into uncomfortable sleep. The altitude and the tiny tent combined for a long night. I personally found the tent too hot and too short for my liking so I slept with my head outside the tent quite comfortably.
I awoke late the next morning (day 2) to find the kids outside and eating breakfast. Joanna complained that she had been bumped and jabbed from both sides most of the night. Patrick and I looked at each other questioningly and dismissed the complaint as minor. By the time we broke camp and set off it was 10am. This was a late start that would be our pattern for the most of the trek. As we approached the tiny village of Rumbak we passed a number of trekkers that were on the popular two-day trek that starts at Spitok and ends at Stok. We chatted with a few (all going in the opposite direction) and kept a steady pace. By noon we were at Rumbak village and inquired about a Homestay and were directed to a local home were we were offered lunch and tea for 50rs. After we had rested and eaten our fill we reluctantly set out for the village of Yuruche a short distance (one hour) up a tributary stream to the southwest. At one point we passed a large farm house, considered stopping to ask directions, but continued on. At 4pm we arrived at a large Tea Tent camp area and were informed that the farmhouse we passed was the village of Yuruche (our Homestay target of that day). It wasn’t a major issue since the tea tent owner offered to let us sleep in his dining tent for 50rs each (after his last customers left for the night). He also offered a dinner of rice and vegetables for 50rs. We agreed to the terms and then spent the rest of the sunny afternoon lounging about the camp and talking to the many other trekkers. The site was very crowded consisting of a party of 20 Czech, two Swiss, two Spanish, two French and a smattering of other trekkers, plus numerous ponies and keepers that were transporting supplies into the valley. This large group kept the tea tent hopping and us sitting impatiently. Finally around 10pm Joanna pulled out her sleeping bag and lay down among the remaining customers and prepared to go to sleep. The customers got the hint and left shortly. By 11pm we were all out for the count.
The tea tent became active early the next morning (day 3) so we ate an early breakfast of instant noodles (the worst possible meal in my opinion) and then set off for the pass at 7:30am. We set out just ahead of the rest of the trekkers so it was a case of constant passing all the way to the pass as different parties vied for the front of the snaking line of trekkers. The distinction of first on the Gonda La pass (4940m) went to the two Swiss girls who appeared immune to altitude. We kept up a steady pace and came in at a respectable third place. At the pass we spent a lot of time filming, taking pictures, hiking up the adjoining hill (Manikeo, 5275m), and letting the large group move well ahead of us. We were the last to leave the pass at 11am. We then wound our way down the wide and dusty plateau where gave them in yak self-defense and then made them walk thru a herd of grazing yaks to test their receptivity to directions. They were both frightened and excited by the feat.
In time we reached the willow lined Shingri Nala steam that had carved out a long and impressive gorge over the years as it made its way down to join the Markha River. The gorge was not a difficult trek, but its constant winding nature, the sheer walls, the evident landslides, the numerous crossings of the river, and the beating sun all added up for a long afternoon. It felt as though it was taking much too long to cover the short distance displayed on our map so we stopped a number of times to consider if we had somehow taken a wrong turn or over-shot the gorge opening. Finally at 5pm we sited the gompas that marked the location of the Skyu monastery and the opening of the gorge onto the Markha valley. We rounded the gorge bend, heading up steam, and found a number of teahouses, campsites, and even a solar shower (50rs). We enquired and were informed that the Homestay was a further 15 minutes up stream from the village. The kids were not happy, but had no choice but to continue up stream or spend the night in the tiny tent. They had decided that they would use Homestay facilities (300rs for dinner, a bed, breakfast, and a pack lunch) whenever possible to avoid the necessity of three people sleeping in the two-man tent. We marched on and eventually found the house, however, no one was home. We sat around for a while and then made a number of small expeditions in different directions to try and find locals that might know the whereabouts of the owners. We were informed that they would return before dark, but as the sun set we became skeptical. Eventually I set up my tent down by the river at a cleared camp area and then we walked back to Skyu village to eat dinner at one of the teahouses (100rs each). After dinner we returned to the Homestay just as the owners returned. I paid them the standard fee of 100rs per tent and the kids moved into the house for the night. I found the tent very comfortable since I had enough room to sleep diagonally and spread my stuff out accordingly. I determined that I would sleep in the tent as often as possible.
The next day’s walk from Skyu to Markha village (day 4) turned out to be a very long and wet day that marked a clear change in the temperament of the group. By the time Patrick had gotten out of bed to eat breakfast and Joanna had taken a sponge bath it was 9:30 and we were setting off in the middle of the large Czech group and the French girl mounted on a pony like Joan of Arch. I was very annoyed with the kids since all these trekkers made it impossible for me to get clear filming shots. It is said that Captain Bligh’s main faults were extraordinary arrogance and a violent temper and that he treated his crow like children. I sincerely doubted that I possessed the first of these two faults, but do agree with the third. In most cases I do treat novice trekkers like children and as a result I expend a lot of energy teaching and directing them. So with directness I suggested that, in the future, we needed to start our days earlier. In response Joanna gave me a stone cold stare that gave me a premonition of trouble to come. Perhaps the children were not used to being told what to do, however, they had both signed film releases and agreed to follow my directing, so I ignored the challenging stares.
That day consisted of a hot and dusty trek along the river, crossing over a few wood or stone bridges, and generally aiming southeast for the village of Markha. As the day progressed I found Joanna growing colder and more temperamental. I could see that my suggestions to stop and film or hold for a photo were beginning to wear on her nerves. In time she simply ignored my requests or became passively aggressive. Yet with Patrick she seemed unchanged. It seemed as though they had bonded extremely well. They walked together at all times and discussed their respective university drinking games and parties endlessly. It seemed to be the only topic that they shared an interest in and had considerable life experience at. In time I simply left them alone and gave them some space in hopes that the things might go easier. I was determined to keep the trek on our pre-defined schedule and to film as much as possible, even if they found it irksome at times.
We reached Markha village by 5pm and all agreed to Homestay. Joanna disappeared almost immediately to join the Spanish couple we had met the a few nights before and Patrick followed. Once again I kept myself separated from the kids to give them space and to assert my leadership role (that seemed to be degrading rapidly). The evening was uneventful as we all ate dinner together (I sat at the opposite side of the room naturally) and they turned in early (I sat outside until they were settled). I seriously wondered if we were going to make it to the end of this trek as a single group. I couldn’t abandoned them since I was responsible for their well being, but Joanna was making the trek difficult for me and also diminishing the wonder and enjoyment of the natural beauty of the surroundings. We were trekking in one of the most beautiful settings I had encountered to date, and she was making it difficult for me stay focused. I resolved to bite my tongue and finish the trek one way or another.
The trek from Markha village to Namling camp (day 5) was another very long and hot day of river crossings, both dry and wet crossings (consisting of barefoot wading through the frigid waters), false trails that ended at water or washouts, climbing through gullies to regain the track, or following behind dusty strings of donkeys. During the course of that day it became clear that I was losing control over group. They seemed listless and only tentatively got involved in the filming and photo opportunities I presented. Joanna was also starting to complain about cramps and was not looking too well. However the subtle indicator of problems was the fact that they were taking fewer and fewer personal photos. Once again I tried to be patient and only directed them at the most inviting scenic locations, but even these few suggestions seemed to be burdensome to them.
With persistence we reached the tent camp area of Tahungtse at 4pm where all the other trekkers stopped for the day. My plan had always been to continue on to Namling (a minimum of two additional hours) so that we would be close to the pass the following morning. Joanna seemed reluctant to proceed, but I didn’t ask for a vote. I simply let the kids rest for half an hour and then led the way out of the camp. I had some difficulty finding and staying on the trail initially, which caused Joanna to become even more frustrated, plus the trail grew very steep and difficult for the next hour. I could see she was having difficulty but it wouldn’t be any easier the next day when we had to cross a 5200m pass, so the wisest choice was to push on now and make the following day that much easier. Joanna and Patrick followed along obediently, but kept well back of me. It appeared to me as though the group was definitely splitting into two parts.
I led on and kept the pace steady. I stopped from time to time to let them rest (which they did at a respectable distance from me). By 5pm we reached a crest covered in small cairns and then shortly thereafter a tiny mountain pond with a circular enclosure of stones. Joanna looked exhausted and Patrick was very quiet for a change. I could see that trouble was brewing but we had no choice other than to push on. Turning back was out of the question. We spent the next hour walking across a rolling high plateau until I finally spotted a small encampment far ahead. I picked up my pace and reached the Namaling white Tea Tent by 6pm. On the horizon I could see Joanna and Patrick slowly making their way towards me. I set about finding a place to setup my tent while they went directly into the Tea Tent. I found them there later and learned that they had made arrangements with the Tea Tent for a Homestay. The owner had a second tent that he rented out as a Homestay. The kids moved in happily (since it came with a lot of blankets and it was already shaping up to be a cold night). I returned to my tent to wait until 7:30pm and then joined them for one of the best meals of rice and vegetables that I have had in Ladakh (or at least it seemed that way at the time). It had grown very cold since the sun had set so I returned to my cold tent after dinner knowing that I would have a shivering night of sleep. The kids on the other hand were very happy in the knowledge that they would be warmly bundled that night.
My prediction of a cold night was an understatement. I heard the patter of what I assumed were raindrops on the tent during the night. In the morning I found the tent heavily weighted down and in a muted light. I had difficulty opening the flap to investigate until I realized that the tent was buried in snow. I tapped the sides of the tent to get the snow to slide off the sides and then emerged into a winter wonderland. The skies were dark gray, clouds shrouded the slopes, at least a half a foot of snow had accumulated, and it was bitingly cold out. I made my way over to the kid’s tent and pointed out the new conditions and told them we should meet and discuss the day’s plans at breakfast in the Tea Tent.
At breakfast (day 6) we found out that no one was leaving until later in the morning (due to the snow). Rather than wait for the others that had guides I advised that we leave immediately since later in the day the trail would surely be wetter and even more slippery. It was better to go while it was still frozen, even if it meant some difficulty finding and staying on the trail. The kids agreed without comment. It was clear that they had lost all interest in the trek and were simply eager to get back to Leh. It was obvious that staying at Namaling was out of the question since the weather might get even worse. The sooner we cleared the pass, the sooner and closer we would be to completing the trek. Around 8:30am we set out across the small bridge that spanned the river and then up the slope northeast of the camp. I had trouble finding and keeping the trail up the long slope but not as much as later when we crested the rise and were faced with a wide, open, and rolling plateau. I guessed at the trail directions and occasionally sighted small cairns that kept me going in a generally east-by-north direction until I finally lost all signs of a trail. I then had the kids sit on a large flat boulder while I waited for the low clouds to clear and provide momentary glimpses of the wall of hills to our north. I knew from the map that the pass was in that general direction, but without a clear view I really had no sure way of knowing which divide would lead to the pass. As we sat on the rock I noticed that a large fluffy cloud hung persistently in front of one of the divides. Clearly there was an updraft holding it there so I speculated that a pass must be hidden behind that cloud. As if in answer to my query, the cloud moved temporarily and I sighted the outline of a snowy trail zigzagging up the slope.
I roused the kids, who seemed content to simply sit on the rock for the rest of the day, and we started the long upward march. They fell behind a respectable distance and then kept pace with me until we reached Gongmaru La Pass (5200m) at 10:30am. Patrick was ecstatic upon reaching the fog encumbered pass. I had informed him at the beginning of the trek that this pass was at the same elevation at Everest Base Camp in China. He had stated that he was determined to clear this pass so that he could tell his friends that he had been as high as Everest Base Camp. Joanna, on the other hand, didn’t seem that impressed. She pointed out that that only men would be silly enough to think in such terms. She had previously belittled the topic of summits and individual accomplishments a number of times on the grounds that they were simply male testosterone issues and today she was no kinder or gentler as Patrick and I hopped about in triumph. I ignored her negative remarks and enjoyed the pass, as did Patrick. I had tried to be sympathetic to Joanna’s growing exhaustion and the effects of altitude over the past few days, but in truth, there was little I could no. Once we had reached the halfway mark in the trek there was no going back. Heading back would take the same number of days and the crossing of two passes, while heading forward would provide new (and interesting) country and only one additional pass (although a very high pass) and then a day and a half of downhill trekking. Like Captain Bligh, I had no option other than to push the crew hard in order that they might reach the end of the trek sooner.
I let the crew rest and then we set off down the slippery and foggy north slope of the pass. The trail for the rest of the day was a long slippery slide, with a lot of walking in the riverbed, crossing slippery boulders, pursuing washed out dead end trails, and scrambling in scree until we reached the wide opening of the gorge at the village of Chogdo around 3:15pm. Joanna insisted that we Homestay at Chogdo rather than go on another two hours to Sumdo. I agreed, but felt that we really should have pushed on. The next day we found out that there is now a road to Sumdo and that we could have caught a morning bus back to Leh. However we didn’t know that at the time so spent that evening comfortable and warm simply killing time and then going to bed early.
We were up early the next and final morning (day 7) and off by 7:30. We reached Sumdo by 9:30 where we crossed the river one last time and then followed a new gravel road (not shown on my map) to the town of Martselang an additional two hours downstream. A number of vehicles passed us going in the opposite direction and I grew apprehensive. I could tell from the kids dower looks that they would flag down the first vehicle going in our direction and ask for a ride back to Leh. Even though the trail had ended and were now walking on a road, I felt that it was important that we stick to our original plan and reach the village of Hemis. Anything short of Hemis would be a copout in my (male testosterone jaded) opinion.
At a small shop, outside of Martselang, we were misinformed by a helpful local who sent us on a “shortcut” across a rolling expanse of gullies for two hours, rather down the road to reach Hemis Gompa. By the end of the ill-fated shortcut Joanna was exhausted and extremely livid. She resolutely settled onto a rock on the side of the road and stated coldly that the next time she trekked it would be with woman only because woman wouldn’t be dumb enough to take stupid shortcuts. Rather than get into a tiff with her at this late stage of the trek, I resolved to say nothing. I pointed up the road to the village and simply moved on assuming they would follow. I when looked back a few times and saw that Joanna and Patrick were still sitting in the same spot. I signaled to them a few times but they either didn’t see me or ignored me. I realized at that moment that the group had finally mutinied and like Captain Bligh, I was being cast off on my own. They were refusing to follow and acting on their own initiative now that they were back in civilization (so to speak). I shrugged, tightened my straps and walked up the road to the village of Hemis and then further up the slop to the monastery called Hemis Gompa. There I spotted the daily bus to Leh, settled down to wait for its departure and wondered if the kids were going have second thoughts and follow me up to the village or were they going to wait for the bus to come down to them. Later I saw no sign of them as the bus wound its way down from the monastery to make its slow way back to Leh.
Upon returning to Leh I met Patrick at the Guest House and he told me they had caught the first bus heading to Leh that came along the road. I felt conflicting emotions upon hearing that news. Their independent return to Leh pained me because for the first time in many years of trekking I had finished a trek without the entire party and because technically they had quit the trek one kilometer short of our agreed final objective. I knew this shortfall wouldn’t bother them, but it would have been unthinkable for me to do the same (perhaps that is simply the testosterone speaking). Sadly I also realized that I would have to pay more attention to personalities in the future if I was going to continue to trek with complete strangers. And then an uncontrollable laughed escaped from within me as I realized with relief that, like Captain Bligh, my crew had mutinied, and yet I had still accomplished the original objectives. Another trek bights the dust and I was now free to focus on the next adventure!
Gongmaru La Pass (5200m)
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Markha Trek Page
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